A national environmental group is threatening to sue over the federal government's oil spill emergency response plan for Alaska, saying regulators violated the law by not studying whether using chemicals to disperse oil spills would harm the state's endangered and threatened marine species.
The Center for Biological Diversity sent the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard a letter Wednesday saying it would sue in 60 days if the agencies do not correct the spill-response plan's alleged violations of the federal Endangered Species Act.
"We highlighted chemical dispersants because that has emerged as a (pollution) concern, but it's one concern among many with the response plan" in Alaska," said Rebecca Noblin, the center's Alaska director.
Dispersants are a collection of chemicals used to dilute and disperse oil spills, with the goal of keeping oil slicks from hitting sensitive coastlines. Dispersants were used during the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and remain highly controversial in Alaska. Many groups in Alaska, including the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, oppose the use of dispersants, claiming they aren't effective in the state's cold waters and might cause more harm to fish and wildlife.
In the letter to the EPA and Coast Guard on Wednesday, Noblin wrote that chemical dispersants and broken-down oil can be even more harmful to marine life than untreated oil, and the long-term impacts of the dispersants haven't been adequately tested.
"We're not saying you absolutely can't use dispersants; we're saying, 'Study it,' " Noblin said in an interview.
The Endangered Species Act requires the agencies to assess the potential biological impact of their spill cleanup methods on federally listed species in Alaska, including polar bears, Cook Inlet beluga whales, sea otters, Steller sea lions and several bird species, she said.
The EPA and the Coast Guard did not provide any response to the legal notice on Wednesday after being asked for comment.
Brad Smith, a federal scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Anchorage, said Wednesday that a biological consultation on the oil-spill response plan began more than three years ago but it "apparently stalled out."
The spill-response plan -- called the Alaska Federal and State Preparedness Plan for Response to Oil and Hazardous Substances Discharges and Releases Plan -- is a massive document that includes contingency plans for pollution cleanups all over Alaska. The plan was updated earlier this year.
In its letter to the agencies on Wednesday, the diversity center criticized the spill plan for allowing spill responders to use chemical dispersants in certain parts of Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound without permission from state and federal environmental regulators.
But state and federal officials denied Wednesday that anyone is authorized to do that -- the federal Department of the Interior withdrew pre-approval of using chemical dispersants in 2008, they said.
However, the updated plan, available on the Web, says that the on-scene spill coordinator doesn't need approval from regulators before authorizing chemical dispersants to be used in parts of Cook Inlet and the Sound.